Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Cat Report (W.1/29-14)

The arrival of two newcomers brings us up from just three cats to five, half a room full. Four out of the five get along fine, but the fifth more than makes up for it.

I'd stopped by on Friday to return clean blankets and found KABOODLES had decided I was okay in his book: he purred, rubbed up against my leg, and was quite casual about using my shoulder as a half-way point when leaping up between the cat-stands and the cagetops.

Wednesday morning it seemed like a real breakthrough to find Kaboodle was not hiding, instead sitting on top of his little stand, rather than hiding under the blankets as he had been doing. Nice to see him come out of his shell and reveal himself to be sociable, gentle, and a skilled leaper. He's also v. affectionate, reaching through the cage doors to paw my hat when I first arrived to let me know he wanted to come out and be agreeable.

SCRUFFS does not like walks, he informed me: by giving voice during my Friday morning attempt and by squirming when I offered again Wednesday. What he does like is crouching by the door, enjoying the breeze. And what he likes even better is a brown paper bag placed near the door that he can go inside of and claim as a paper cave all his own. He likes the laser pointer but wants it placed where he can swat at it without leaving his paper cave. He went back into his cage early to avoid Dori.

DORI hates everyone. She has a big impact for such a little, young cat. She refused to come out of her cage, so that I had to clean it around her. Later she did jump out, and made it her business to locate, and hiss and growl at, every other cat in the room. She found Kaboodles minding his own business in the basket-stand on the bench and attacked him, trapping him in there. Scruffs went back into his own cage early to get away from her. Sequoia hid, but Danali stood his ground and Dori kept her distance from him, just growling and hissing instead of attacking. 

I eventually had to scoop her up and put her back in her cage for a time out. Surprisingly, this seemed to be what she wanted: the growls soon subsided and she calmed down. Think it helped that I covered her cage-front with a blanket, giving her some privacy and it seems security as well. Something's wrong with her fight-or-flight response. I'd come in Friday to put a calming collar on her (one of the pheromone kind), but doesn't seem to have had much effect yet.

Next time I think I'll take Dori out first, put her up on the cage-tops, and play with her in hopes of tiring her out a little and getting some of that aggression out. I looked at her history and saw its reference to her brother and wondered if part of her problem isn't being separated from another cat she'd spent all her life with.

As for the newcomers, DANALI is a good fellow who's calmly getting to know the room and the other cats in it. He placed himself near Scruffs, and when there was no growling on either side moved on. Later he investigated Kaboodle's hiding place and again moved along without incident on either side. So the room's three boy cats are all willing to be on good terms with each other: doesn't look like any territorial battles there. 

While Dori was having her Time Out, both the new cats/bonded pair came out. SEQUOIA was interested in the cabinet, so I put her up among the blankets, which she loved. She's still shy but looks to be a cat who loves petting. Thanks to Sharon for posting their picture: Danali is the all-white one and Sequoia the dilute-calico point mostly white one.

--no walks, aside from quick out-and-back-ins.

--no one among our current cats likes wet food.

--no health issues I noticed. I bought a little thing of cat grass at the registers as I was coming in and let the room cats all have a go at smelling it. None nibbled on it, which rather surprised me.

Very sorry to hear the news about poor Milo. I hope all those who worked so hard to save him can take comfort in knowing they did all they could to find and rescue him.

--John R.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Voynich Revisited

So, a new theory has surfaced purporting to explain the much-theoried VOYNICH MANUSCRIPT.*


Here are links, first to a quick summary, then to a slightly more detailed story:



The herbalist's book theory has been raised before, the main twist this time being to shift the focus from the Old World to the New (though even that claim has some precedence; see D'Imperio pages 73-75 and 14-16).

Where this newest theory seems to break down is in the statement that

"names of various plants have been identified in Nahuatl". 

The problem with this is that it's not just the language but the script that's unknown. That is, no one knows what sounds or significance the individual letters or glyphs have (or even how many letters there are, or whether they're letters or ideograms), which has made it impossible to identify the underlying language. So anyone who claims to have identified specific words in the Voynich Manuscript needs to explain the whole decipherment process by which he or she was able to read individual words within the manuscript.

In any case, it's amusing to note that this announcement (that the Ms dates from the early 1500s) flatly contradicts the last major 'discovery' regarding the Ms (the claim that radio-carbon dating established that it dated from the early 1400s).**

For a fascinating summary of theories regarding the Ms, see M. E. D'Imperio's THE VOYNICH MANUSCRIPT -- AN ELEGANT ENIGMA [n.d., circa 1976]

Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be a facsimile edition available, but here's a wonderful site that shows scanned in images of every page, so you can see for yourself just what this weird and wonderful book looks like.

I still stick to my own theory: it's not just an invented alphabet but also an invented language -- as if we had a book in Sindarin written in tengwar, with no other information on either Sindarin or tengwar outside that single book. That's why I doubt the Voynich Manuscript will ever be deciphered, and I suspect we wdn't learn the author's name even if it was. In the meantime, it's a wonderful canvas for people to project their theories onto.

--John R.

*with thanks to Janice for the link
**see my earlier blog post from February 2011:

Thursday, January 23, 2014

More Tolkien at 2014 Kalamazoo

And, sure enough, here's a few more Tolkien presentations in non-Tolkien dominated panels. Plus, I thought I'd throw the C. S. Lewis ones in as well, just for the sake of convenience.


Friday May 9th, 10 a.m.
The Real Generic Middle Ages
Sponsor: Tales after Tolkien Society
Organizer: Helen Young, Univ. of Sydney
Presider:  Helen Young
“Creasing the Truth”: Dialogical Medievalisms in Kevin Crossley Holland’s Arthur Trilogy
Molly Brown, Univ. of Pretoria
Little, Big: The Royal Court versus Owen Archer’s York
Candace Robb/Emma Campion, Independent Scholar
Unchurched: On the Relative Lack of Religion in Tolkienan-Tradition Fantasy Literature
Geoffrey B. Elliott, Oklahoma State Univ.
Adapting Odin: The Pagan and the Secular in Contemporary Urban Fantasy
Kim Wilkins, Univ. of Queensland

Saturday May 10th, 3.30 p.m.
In Honor of Geoffrey Richard Russom: Aspects of Early English Poetic Culture II
Organizer: M. J. Toswell, Univ. of Western Ontario
Presider: Amy N. Vines, Univ. of North Carolina–Greensboro
Tolkien’s Archaisms
Paul Acker, St. Louis Univ.
The (Comparative) Roots of English Literature
Lesley E. Jacobs, Brown Univ.
Boars and Beowulf Lindy Brady, Univ. of Mississippi
Maxims III: The Aphorisms of Geoffrey Russom Susan Signe Morrison, Texas State Univ.

Friday, May 9th, 1.30 p.m.
C. S. Lewis and the Middle Ages I
Sponsor: C. S. Lewis Society, Purdue Univ.; Center for the Study of C. S. Lewis and Friends, Taylor Univ.
Organizer: Joe Ricke, Taylor Univ.
Presider:  Joe Ricke
This Is Awkward: C. S. Lewis and the Medieval Matter of Race
Hannah Oliver Depp, American Univ.
Wise Beyond Their Years: Pearl, The Great Divorce, and the Medieval Dream Vision
Amber Dunai, Texas A&M Univ.
The Discarded Mage: Lewis’s Merlin and the Medieval Mind
Christopher Jensen, Florida State Univ.
Dante’s Vision and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader Marsha Daigle-Williamson, Spring Arbor Univ.

Friday, May 9th 3.30 p.m.
C. S. Lewis and the Middle Ages II
Sponsor: C. S. Lewis Society, Purdue Univ.; Center for the Study of C. S. Lewis and Friends, Taylor Univ.
Organizer: Joe Ricke, Taylor Univ.
Presider:  Ingrid Pierce, Purdue Univ.
Getting Medieval on Matter: C. S. Lewis and “Stuff”
Chris Armstrong, Bethel Seminary
Medieval Sources for the Anthropology of The Abolition of Man Laura A. Smit, Calvin College
This Rough Magic: C. S. Lewis and the Medieval Dialogue about Magic
Edwin Woodruff-Tait, Independent Scholar

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

2014 Tolkien at Kalamazoo schedule

So, the tentative schedule is now out for this year's Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo. Thanks to Janice, here's a link to the whole schedule of more than 550 sessions:

There are fewer on Tolkien this year (although I see two on CSL), though still quite a range of interesting topics I'm looking forward to learning more about.  Here's a listing of the Tolkien-themed sessions for those, like me, primarily interested in their Tolkien track. There are probably a few Tolkien papers in other sessions as well that I didn't spot in a first skim through the program book. This year the Tolkien events are front-loaded towards the first day of the conf, which I suppose means more time for non-Tolkien sessions and wandering through the book room.


Thursday, May 8th, 10 a.m.
Session 38 Bernhard 208

Tolkien and His Medieval Sources
Sponsor: Tolkien at Kalamazoo
Organizer: Brad Eden, Valparaiso Univ.
Presider:  Edward Risden, St. Norbert College
Tolkien Grammaticus: The Influence of the Gesta Danorum on The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings
Leigh Smith, East Stroudsburg Univ.
Approaching “Se Uncuthaholm”: Tolkien’s Early Study of Anglo-Saxon Poetry and Prose as a Source for the Invention of Ottor Waefre
Andrew Higgins, Cardiff Metropolitan Univ.
Creative Corrections: Tolkien’s Response to Beorhtnoth’s Ofermod Colin Pajda, St. Louis Univ.
Tolkien’s Man in the Moon and Medieval Complaint Literature Brad Eden
Hrolfr Kraki in Tolkien’s Middle-earth Brent Landon Johnson, Mythgard Institute/Signum Univ.Thursday 10:00 a.m. 

Thursday, May 8th, 1.30 p.m.
Session 83 Bernhard 208

Tolkien’s The Fall of Arthur
Sponsor: Tolkien at Kalamazoo
Organizer: Brad Eden, Valparaiso Univ.
Presider:  Brad Eden
“That seems fatal to me”: Pagan and Christian in The Fall of Arthur John D. Rateliff, Independent Scholar
Mapping the Grammatical Margins of Middle-earth: How the Geography of The Fall of Arthur fits in Tolkien’s Legendarium
Robin Anne Reid, Texas A&M Univ.–Commerce
“Double-Hearted”: Psychomachia in The Fall of Arthur John R. Holmes, Franciscan Univ. of Steubenville
Tides of Time in The Fall of Arthur Robert Tredray, Independent Scholar
Where Is Avalon? Tolkien’s Otherworld in the West and The Fall of Arthur Dimitra Fimi, Cardiff Metropolitan Univ.

Thursday, May 8th, 3.30 p.m.
Session 134 Bernhard 208

Tolkien’s Natural World and Science
Sponsor: Tolkien at Kalamazoo
Organizer: Brad Eden, Valparaiso Univ.
Presider:  Anna Smol, Mount St. Vincent Univ.
The (Nearly) Discarded Image: Tolkien’s Later Tinkerings with His Medieval Cosmology
Kristine Larsen, Central Connecticut State Univ.
You Must Remember This: Time Dilation in Middle-earth
Michael Wodzak, Viterbo Univ.
Litany of the Ents: Treebeard’s Priesthood and the Sacred Nature of Tolkien’s Natural World
Victoria Holtz Wodzak, Viterbo Univ.

Friday, May 9th, 6.30 p.m.
Tales after Tolkien Society
Business Meeting

Friday, May 9th, 7 p.m.
Tolkien Unbound (Performances)
Sponsor: Tolkien at Kalamazoo
Organizer: Brad Eden, Valparaiso Univ.
Presider:  Robin Anne Reid, Texas A&M Univ.–Commerce

Maidens of Middle-earth IV
Eileen Marie Moore, Cleveland State Univ.

A Dramatic Reading of Tolkien’s The Fall of Arthur
John D. Rateliff, Independent Scholar; Thom Foy, Univ. of Michigan–Dearborn; John Houghton, Independent Scholar; and Brad Eden.

Songs for the Philologists
Douglas A. Anderson, Independent Scholar; Amy Amendt-Raduege, Whatcom Community College; Jewell Morow, Independent Scholar: Deidre Dawson, Michigan State Univ.; Merlin DeTardo, Independent Scholar; and Brad Eden.

Saturday May 10th, 12 noon
Tolkien at Kalamazoo
Business Meeting


Hope to see some familiar faces,* as well as meet some new ones.

--John R.

*well, as familiar as faces get to someone with face blindness.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Abyssinian Gondar

So, earlier this month I came across a reference to a new book on Tolkien that I hadn't heard anything about: Michael Muhling's THE REAL MIDDLE-EARTH.

This is not to be confused with an earlier book of the same title, THE REAL MIDDLE EARTH, by Brian Bates [2003], which I have but have not yet read. Bates' book seems to focus on Medieval England, while Muhling believes The Lord of the Rings was inspired by Abyssinia, the ancient country now known as Ethiopia. This has the virtue of being a new idea (or at least a new revival and expansion of a v. old idea) in a field where too many new books recycle ideas already thoroughly explored by others. The question then becomes did he pull it off -- has this new idea coming out of left field been made into a persuasive case?

Having now just finished reading the book, I'd say it's really an essay stretched out to book length. The author, a Tolkien scholar from Perth, has ahold of an interesting idea, but a more concentrated presentation would have served him better. It's certainly interesting that a number of Ethiopian place-names resemble names in Tolkien's book (most notably Gondar, a former Ethiopian capital), but efforts to draw more parallels between Ethiopian history and the events in LotR (e.g. the smoke plume from Mt Doom being inspired by spray from the Blue Nile waterfall) don't really come off.* This is too bad, because Muhling is disarmingly aware of possible pitfalls -- there's a good section towards the end, for example, where he points out that knowing a person owned a certain book doesn't prove he read it, and likewise the absence of a particular book from someone's private collection doesn't mean he didn't read it. He even takes into account Tolkien's explicit statement in a 1971 letter about not being influenced by the name 'Gondar', from which Muhling acknowledges that any such influence must therefore be subconscious. And Muhling certainly does his due diligence in suggesting various works through which Tolkien cd have learned about Abyssinia -- primarily articles in NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC and books by E. Wallis Budge and Evelyn Waugh.

Not being cognizant of Ethiopian history other than in broad outline, I can't say whether Muhling has done a good job presenting it here, but I found his piecemeal approach a little hard to follow. I'm made somewhat wary by a certain carelessness in contradictory details within his text  -- for example, his statement that the language once spoken there, Ge'ez, is Semitic ("like Hebrew and Arabic"). True enough. But in the next sentence he goes on to assert that "Ge'ez is closely related to Latin" (p. 41). Given that the Ethiopians spoke a South Semetic language, and that Semetic belongs to the AfroAsiatic language group, and that Latin belongs to the IndoEuropean language group, that's simply not so. What he probably meant is that Ge'ez, as a liturgical language no longer spoken outside of rituals, Ge'ez fulfills a function within the Coptic Church that Latin once did within the Roman Church. But that's not what he said, and what he said is simply wrong. In another odd example, he says the Ethiopians invaded Yemen "around 300 AD" (p. 102), then on the next page says this was done at the behest of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian (p. 103) -- who reigned from 527 to 565 AD. Two and a half centuries later.  Neither of these slips much affects his argument, but it does diminish my faith in the rest of the historical material he presents.

One point I really found surprising was Muhling's section (p. 124ff) about whether the Abyssinian town of Bahir Dar might have inspired Tolkien's Barad-dur. The names are similar, but Muhling's suggestion that Bahir Dar would have had negative association for Tolkien because it was a Jesuit stronghold seems inherently unlikely, as does the parallel Muhling seeks to draw between  (1) the Portuguese missionaries who first aided the Ethiopian Xians against Muslim encroachment and then sought to undermine the Coptic Church and (2) Sauron's treacherous guise as Lord of Gifts. That seems to be a stretch.

So, in the end an interesting idea but I'd say a failed execution which leaves its thesis -- possible inspiration from Abyssinia, or the legend of Prester John, as unproven as ever.

--John R.

"Alger Hiss Was Framed"

So, last night our CALL OF CTHULHU group started a new adventure, with new Keeper, new characters, and new adventure: Steve 'Stan' Brown running MIDNIGHT HARVEST, written by Owen Stephens (a friend from days when we were both at WotC) and published by Super Genius Games. I had fun coming up with a character who's good at investigation but hopeless in combat, an 82-year old folksinger named Willis DunLaoghaire Foster. Essentially he's an old rabble rouser who actually knew Woody Guthrie, Will Geer, and other activist of that bygone era. I usually know more about my characters than ever comes up in the game, and in this case I actually wrote up one of his typical songs, "Alger Hiss Was Framed", which would have been written around 1952. That he'd still be singing it fifty-plus years later says a lot about the character. In any case, thought I'd share.

current reading: THE PAPYRUS OF ANI (as a read-aloud), THE DEAD IN THEIR VAULTED ARCHES (the newest Flavia de Luce novel, just started)
current audiobook: CATCHING FIRE

Alger Hiss Was Framed

Alger Hiss was framed
Alger Hiss was framed
We all know Nixon's dirty game
And Alger Hiss was framed.

We all know Nixon's game
We all know Tricky Dicky's game
They found the goods in a pumpkin patch
When Alger Hiss was framed.

They found microfilm in a pumpkin patch
A pumpkin patch, a pumpkin patch
They found microfilm in a pumpkin patch
Whittaker Chambers' private stash
When Alger Hiss was framed.

Whittaker Chambers' private stash
It wasn't cocaine and it wasn't hash
They planted it there in the pumpkin patch
When they led us up the garden path
The day Alger Hiss was framed.

Nixon's in the White House now
Since Alger Hiss was framed
He rode Eisenhower's coattails
While Alger Hiss they sent to jail
And that's how it goes in the land of the free
For the likes of you and the likes of me
Since Alger Hiss was framed.

—Willis DunLaoghaire Foster  (1926 – ?2008).

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

A Forthcoming Publication (Tolkien and Magic)

So, a while back I was asked if I wanted to contribute to the forthcoming KOBOLD GUIDE TO MAGIC. I said yes, of course, once I'd checked the schedule and made sure there was time to fit in another project among the ones I was already committed to. I've worked with the Kobold Press/Open Design folks before,* and known them for longer than there's actually been a Kobold Press (having been a 'new fish' at TSR with Wolfgang Baur; we both started there the same month [October 1991]),** and thus knowing them to be Good People who do good work. A class act, in fact, in an industry where such are few and far between.

And now in the final run-up to the book's release, they're posting excerpts from some of the chapters: Ed Greenwood's, Steve Winter's, and now mine (so I'm v. much in good company).*** My topic is Magic in Tolkien's works, and my essay looks at three distinct competing theories of what magic is and now it works, and the ways in which Tolkien embraced or rejected each of those three concepts. I'll be curious to see what people make of it, since it belongs to one of my relatively few works that includes both Tolkien and roleplaying games, two topics that have engrossed me for decades now and to one or the other of which the vast majority of my publications belong.

Here's the link.

I'm really looking forward to the book myself, so that I can read the other contributors' essays. I'll try to post a follow-up notice when the book actually comes out.

--John R.

current audiobook: CATCHING FIRE

*having edited THE KOBOLD GUIDE TO GAME DESIGN Vol. II [2008], the D-and-D 4th edition adventure LOST CITY (the only 4th edition project I ever worked on), and the Call of Cthulhu RED EYE OF AZATHOTH campaign [both 2011].

**along with Thomas Reid and Rich Baker.

***thanks to JC for the link.

The Cat Report (Wednesday 1/15-14)

Great news about Rhoda Mia finally finding a home from the Kirkland cat room. Hope she's finally found a home where she gets to look out of windows from atop a cat-tree and gets lots of attention when she's good and ready for it.

Sad news about our friendly fellow yellow George being sent back to Arlington for the litter issues. Can't help but think his being declawed is at the root of it, poor fellow.

That leaves us with just five cats -- four of whom would get along just fine if only the fifth, Sophie Dori, would let them. 

Started off the morning with giving shy guy KABOODLE an outing -- can't really call it a 'walk', since I carried him the whole way. He got to see about half the store and seemed pretty interested, before he started trembling and I took him back in. All morning he was very affectionate -- rubbed against my leg, head-butts, purring. He was hidden, as usual, when I arrived -- so well hidden you wdn't have even known there was anyone in there under those blankets (cat? what cat?). Letting him out first, while all the other cats were still in their cages, and letting him explore, seemed to do him good. I put him up on the cagetops, which he explored thoroughly and seemed to approve; he eventually settled atop the cat-stand near the door -- near his own cage (which he went back into several times, off and on) and also up high where no one cd sneak up on him.

Case in point, little SOPHIE DORI, who no sooner came out of her cage than she began looking for Kaboodle in all the places he'd hidden in last week (this was v. obvious when she poked her head under the cat-stand by the cabinet, went behind the bench, etc.). Luckily it never occurred to her that he might have gone high, so he remained safe from her all morning. For such a small cat she sure throws her weight around: she not only growled at everybody in passing but at one point trapped Shortly in the corner behind the cabinet and wanted to bully her. It got so bad that Scruffy and Mondo Max weren't even left at peace in their cages: she growled at them through the bars and reached through the bars with her paw to try to swat them, so that each retreated to a paw's length from the bars.  Her high point of the morning was discovering a tiny little cricket that'd somehow wandered into the cat-room. Luckily she's an enthusiastic rather than a skilled predator, and she found and lost it three times over the course of the morning (I admit to intervening on the cricket's behalf more than once).

MR. SCRUFFS was his usual majestic self. He set up to hold court near the door, enjoying the breeze that blew under it. He wanted to be seen but not touched: he pulled back from my various attempts to pet him but came right back to the same spot as soon as I stopped. What a beautiful cat. Just wish he'd interact more, with me and with visitors to the room.

MONDO MAX was his usual confident, friendly self, while his pal SHORTY is still shy but less frightened. In particular I'm glad to say she was more trusting of me, so that when I wd pick her up she wdn't struggle. I put her up on the cagetops, which she cautiously explored and decided she approved of. Later she shifted to the top of the cat-stand near the cabinet, where she stayed the rest of the moring. I'd call that a breakthrough after all the cowering in the cage just last week and the week before. As for Max, he was very sociable. I've concluded he loves attention; when I took him out for a short walk around noon he was somewhat nervous until a man came up and started giving him attention, whereupon Max really opened up and welcomed the attention and petting. 

health concerns:
--Kaboodle's eye seems to be just fine.
--Sophie has a little cat acne on her chin. I got some of it off before she objected and told me that was enough for now. Not a big problem, but we shd keep an eye on it and clean it a little as opportunity offers.
-- I really do think Sophie needs a calming collar. If she's this hostile when the room only has four other cats, none of them aggressive, what's she going to be like once it starts to fill?

--John R.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014


So, thanks to an interesting query that needed following up on,* yesterday I learned that THE HISTORY OF THE HOBBIT is now available in electronic format -- specifically, as a Kindle book.

Although the write-up on that page makes it seem as if it's just Volume I that's available (MR. BAGGINS), the cover image shown is the correct one: this electronic file actually includes both MR. BAGGINS and RETURN TO BAG-END. In fact, it's the revised and expanded single volume edition (THE HISTORY OF THE HOBBIT) released by HarperCollins in 2011.

I'm excited to have the book be readily available to folks with e-readers. I'm old school enough myself to prefer paper books for most of my reading, when that's an option, but know a lot of folks who do most of their reading these days on the Kindle or their i-Pads. And at about a thousand pages for $12.74 it's not bad for scholars on a budget.

Mostly, though, I'm just glad to have another venue in which to share my enthusiasm for Tolkien in general and THE HOBBIT in particular.

current reading: THE REAL MIDDLE-EARTH by Michael Muhling [2013]
current audiobook: CATCHING FIRE (Mockingjay #2)
new long-term off-and-on reading project: THE PAPYRUS OF ANI

*thanks, Jeremy

Friday, January 10, 2014

The New Arrival (Allan's book)

So, Wednesday the newest book we'd ordered arrived: RAIN CITY IN BLACK AND WHITE: Monochrome Photographs of Seattle by our friend Allan Armstrong [2013]. We learned of this through Allan's being a member of our book discussion group ('Mithlond') and, being fans of Allan's photography, when we learned he'd put out an art book we ordered a copy. It's now arrived, and I must say we're v. pleased with it.

He sets out his organizing principle in the back cover copy: Seattle's typical weather is grey and misty, but photos of the city usually feature it in bright, clear colors, being taken on those rare days when all is sunny and bright. By contrast, he shot in black-and-white to better evoke the city as it really is. The effect is surprisingly noir-ish, and I mean that in a good way.

His choice of subjects also helps: there's a definite preference here for images of bits of public architecture, most of it a century or so old. An ornate railing here, a walrus gargoyle there; old bridge supports alternating with utility buildings; an elegant courtyard, an art deco doorway: it all adds up to an unfamiliar but appealing view of the city. One abandoned business looked like it'd be perfect for a re-creation of Hopper's famous 'Nighthawks' painting (p. 32). There's also some history in the captions that was new to me, such as the "derelict ramps of the cancelled R. H. Thomson Expressway . . . aborted in 1970 because of a citizen revolt" (p. 19).

I have to admit that one reason this book appeals to me is that I've always loved alleys. When I'm out walking, I like to take back ways and see what buildings look like without their facades, from a point of view where patches and changes haven't been plastered over, where the old brick pavement still pokes through here and there among the puddles. There's a similar sort of backstage feel to some of these shots I really enjoyed.

Anyway, here's a link to more information (, and another that offers a preview that gives a really good idea of what the images look like (

--John R.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Cat Report (W.1/8-14)

With the adoption of little miss Zippy Zoe (hurray!), we were down to just three cats, all of them relative newcomers: SCRUFFY, SHORTY, and MONDO MAX. Now that's doubled to six with the arrivals of GEORGE YODA (a friendly and talkative yellow tom, almost brown towards his head), SOPHIE DORIE (a youngish white and gray cat, full of zip and zim), and shy KABOODLE (a long sleek shy black cat with a very long face who's very good at hiding). It's nice to have a little more room so the cats don't crowd each other so much as they try to sort out who's who and what's what in the cat room, establishing their routines and finding their own favorite spots.

We started with walks for George and Dorie. Sophie Dorie liked the idea of having a walk but was wary when she discovered that it's awfully big out there. Still, it's a start. George did much better; although he requires frequent reassurance. He got all the way over to the birds, who fascinated him. Clearly a predator, given the opportunity. The one thing to watch for when walking him is how much he likes to climb up on the shelves and sit atop those big bags of catfood ("mine, all mine"). Being clawless he can't hurt them, but still I want to encourage him to do a little more walking when he's on a walk. 

After we came in George claimed the spot by the door (think he likes the incoming breeze). Turns out he really loves his catnip, melting into total bliss. 
Dorie y contrast was around and about, restlessly exploring. She even wound up among the towels in the cabinet at one point. She loves the automated cat-toy, especially when it's covered with a sheet of crinkly paper she could pounce on. In fact, she joined in just about every game we had, but she and Mr. Scruffs seemed to like the automated toy and the string game best. She's not very friendly with other cats, and did a fair amount of hissing when they came too close.

By contrast, little Kaboodle is very shy. When I arrived she was burrowed under her blankets so successfully that you cdn't tell, by sight, that there was even a cat in there. When she came out, she hid in the basket on the bench. Later, she Dorie had been startled to discover her there and hissed at her, Kaboodle retreated to beneath the bottom rung on the cat-stand by the cabinet. She's still playful, though; when I was playing the string game a little black paw shot out each time the string came close to where she was hiding. She's very gentle and I hope will gain some confidence after being in the cat-room for a while.

Shorty is also shy, but came out on her own and seemed to enjoy it, even though she shied away from being petted and went back into her cage (again, on her own initiative) early. She seems to be doing better, though she'll never be outgoing, esp. with strangers.

Mr. Scruffs was well-behaved, joining in games but getting along well with the other cats. He enjoys one-on-one attention and all kinds of games. His favorite I think was a big paper bag with some catnip in it placed on the cage-tops. He got inside and was one happy cat, until Mondo Max also decided it was a fine game and proceeded to sit on the bag, squashing Scruffs in the process. Scruffs stayed longer than I wd have expected but eventually abandoned the bag (and the cage-tops) to Max.

Speaking of Mondo Max, he had no sooner jumped up to the cage-tops than he squatted down and peed on the foam cat-mattresses up there -- I caught him in the act, but too late to prevent it. I bagged up the foam and cleaned up the mess, but don't know it those pieces can be cleaned thoroughly enough to get the odor out or not. Aside from that he was good as gold; relaxed in a cat-bed up there, joined in a string game, and in general just enjoyed being King of the Mountain.

And that's pretty much it for the morning. About half the cats went in peaceably, the other half (Sophie, Yoda) with lamentations.

--John R.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Thought Police (more Bernal)

So, while putting together the previous post (which took a while, since I decided to re-read Bernal's CADMEAN LETTERS first), I came across an impassioned denunciation of myself for having at one point cited Bernal:

--The "volume of Tolkien scholarship" to which she refers, by the way, is not THE HISTORY OF THE HOBBIT (although I do indeed refer to Bernal at one point in there*) but the Blackwelder festschrift. In one of my endnotes to my essay therein ("'And All the Days of Her Life Are Forgotten'," Nt 52 p. 96) I mention in passing that Bernal's book contains a good description of the relationship between IndoEuropean and AfroAsiatic. Since reading "Midgard's" indignant denunciation, I've gone back and re-read those seven pages by Bernal, and I can't see what she was objecting to: it's a straightforward, clear account of these two major language families, with particular focus on the individual languages from both groups that came into close proximity.

I admit I'm a bit taken back by the declaration that I'm not "allowed" to cite scholars of whose work the poster disapproves. Especially when the person making the objection seems not to have actually read the work she is denouncing.

My favorite part? Finding myself criticized essentially for making one of my footnotes was too short. The note in question is attached to a paragraph in which I discuss the quest to recover lost languages, such as Gothic and IndoEuropean (or more properly IndoHittite), and included mention of this project taken to its logical extreme in the work of some scholars to try to find ever more remote ancestral languages (like 'Nostratic'), with the ultimate goal of recovering a few words of "Proto World", the original human language. Personally, I think this is a fascinating concept but a vain effort, and cite McWhorter to that effect.

Barfield, by the way, was v. skeptical about IndoEuropean for much the same reasons as McWhorter about ProtoWorld -- not the methodology the philologists had used, but doubt that that the resultant collection of roots actually bore much resemblance to the living language that had once existed; he thought they tended to treat their hypotheses as having a real existence rather than a speculative one. Whereas a living language is full of quirks and anomalies deriving from happenstance, unrecoverable by any methodology.

Anyway, it takes a good deal out of the sting of an online attack to come across it three or four months after it's been posted; harder to get worked up over, in the circumstances. Though I hope that 'Midgard' didn't just stop at BLACK ATHENA REVISITED (a collection of attacks on Bernal) but presses onward to read BLACK ATHENA WRITES BACK, his rejoinders, as well.

--John R.
current reading: AMARNA AND ITS PEOPLE (Kemp), HERESY IN THE UNIVERSITY (Berlinerblau)

*H.o.H. vol. II p. 193, where I mention in passing Bernal's support for Plato's claim that the Atlantis myth has an Egyptian origin.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Elegy for an Iconoclast: Martin Bernal

So, as the year was wrapping up I got to thinking about who might be the most interesting person to have died in 2013. Some passings got a lot of attention, like that of Mandela and Peter O'Toole. One that got almost no attention was the death of historian Martin Bernal (I didn't learn about it myself until September, more than two months after the event, and only then because a friend in England who knew of my interest in Bernal's work passed along the news*).

I have a fondness for iconoclasts, scholars who come up with an idea out of left field that explains things the standard theory about their field don't cover. They ask the right questions, though they may not come up with the right answers (the late great Thor Heyerdahl being a prime example). It's also a good way to keep up to date, especially given that sometimes things we were taught were true back in school (e.g., that dinosaurs are extinct) aren't true anymore.**

In Bernal's case, he started with a very simple thesis that seems self-evident: that classical Greek civilization did not create itself out of nothing but was heavily influenced by the two great civilizations and cultures that dominated that part of the world (the eastern Mediterranean) before the rise of Greece: first Egypt (particularly in the time of the Middle and New Kingdoms) and then later Phoenicia (from whom they derived the alphabet). He suggested this influence took many forms -- most interestingly, drawing parallels between Egyptian gods and what became the Greek pantheon. Most controversially, he pointed out that although Greek is an IndoEuropean language, only some 40% of Greek words can be traced back to an IndoEuropean root.*** The traditional solution to this problem was to postulate that the remaining 60% derived from an unknown people ("the Pelasgians") who'd lived in the Aegean before the Greeks, whom they conquered and whose language heavily influenced their own. Bernal suggests instead that a large proportion of the non-IndoEuropean words derive from Egyptian and Phoenician, borrowed along with the trade goods and concepts that accompanied them.

This proposal led to a firestorm of controversy, which settled into a predictable pattern: Bernal would publish a volume making a number of claims,**** the book would be denounced in whole and in specifics, and Bernal would respond in detail to the attacks. Mary Lefkowitz and Guy MacLean Rogers even put together a five-hundred-page collection devoted entirely to essays attacking Bernal's ideas (BLACK ATHENA REVISITED), to which Bernal responded with an equally lengthy point-by-point rejoinder (BLACK ATHENA WRITES BACK).

The fascinating thing about all this was not just that Bernal threw off some really interesting ideas (e.g., that the 'Philistines' were Mycenean Greeks) but that he changed his opponents more than they changed him. Over and over, if you follow through the debate, Bernal will challenge the conventional wisdom, to which The Powers That Be (e.g., Establishment figures like Lefkowitz) would react by (a) denying that his charge was true and (b) shifting their own position towards his, but stopping well short of his mark. I think Bernal himself was something of a gadfly who knew exactly what he was doing and deliberately cast his ideas into provocative form to elicit just this response.

The best example I can think of for this comes not in BLACK ATHENA itself but a side project, the book CADMEAN LETTERS, which investigates the origins of the Greek alphabet (and writing systems in the Mediterranean in general). Conventional wisdom held that the Greek alphabet dates from the 8th century BC (a century or more after Homer's time) or perhaps even later, and that other writing systems found in the western Mediterranean (e.g. Italy, Iberia) were later still. Bernal suggests that the date was sometime in the 14th or more probably 16th century BC and that the Iberian and Italian scripts derive not from Greek but from this early form of Phoenician. His argument bogs down in excruciating detail and sometimes impenetrable jargon ("there is no difficulty in a voiceless velar affricate-lateral simply delateralizing"), but his critics' response is telling: they indignantly denounce his 16th century BC date and adopt an 11th century BC date instead.

In the end, I'm sorry that Bernal got sidetracked in the linguistics (the least interesting part of his argument) and never wrote out in full his ideas about ways he thought Egyptian gods and mystery cults influenced Greek beliefs and practices: he discusses this briefly in the Introduction to his first volume but got diverted and never returned to fulfill his promise to devote a whole volume to it (which wd have been called THE MYSTERY OF THE SPHINX). Alas.

So, 'rest in peace' seems a little inappropriate to this prickly scholar, but I hope he got a certain satisfaction, in the end, from having weathered the storm. I suspect half his ideas will be taught as conventional wisdom in twenty years' time (probably without any reference to him), which I suspect wd have amused him no end. For my own part, I learned a lot reading him ( e.g., that Hebrew is a Canaanite language, and belongs to the same family tree as Egyptian and Ethiopian, or that Hebrew and Phoenician were mutually intelligible dialects of the same language) and I'm glad I discovered his books (through my friend Taum, who bought the first one and whose copy I inherited). But I'm still sorry we won't ever have that book about Egyptian myth and its dissemination.

--John R.
just finished: CADMEAN LETTERS (second reading)
audiobook: MOCKINGJAY (second time through)

*thanks Charles!
**it's now generally accepted that birds are not just direct descendents of dinosaurs but actual living dinosaurs themselves.
***similarly, English is a Germanic language but has borrowed so heavily from Latin and especially French that Germanic words actually make up less than half of our vocabulary.
****BLACK ATHENA eventually ran to three volumes, some two thousand pages in all, but Bernal's entire argument can be found just by reading the seventy page Introduction to the first volume, which summarizes the whole.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Tolkien Day

Happy Tolkien's Birthday, all.

I celebrated by ordering myself a copy of a new book about Tolkien I just learned about yesterday (this one's about his being influenced by Abyssinia) and began to plan when I might see the new HOBBIT movie a fourth time.

For a quicker gratification, here's a little piece from today's Huffington Post only half-seriously comparing JRRT with R.R.Martin:

My own take on Tolkien vs. Martin? Tolkien is a great author. Martin isn't.

   --John R.

current reading: CADMEAN LETTERS by Martin Bernal [1990]

Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Cat Report (W.1/1/-14) UPDATED

UPDATE 1/3-14: And just a day later (Thursday), Zippy Zoe got adopted to a home of her own. What a great way to start off the new year in the Cat Room. --JDR

What a month for adoptions it's been. Sweet little Pepe and sassy Bentley, and before that Annette's turn come at last, and before that Spidge, and then Runa after waiting so long, not to mention in-and-out in a flash Chipotle plus Hilo and Ducky. And off-site alumni like Luna and Mr. Ashwyn. It feels good to have so many happy endings in such a short time.

With all this adoption activity, we're down to four cats: ZIPPY ZOE, SCRAPPY, MONDO MAX and SHORTY.  Which means everyone has room to come out of their cages and explore a bit without crowding each other. I know it can't last for long, but the cats sure are enjoying it while they can.

We started off the day with a walk for Zoe, who didn't enjoy being out much but did enjoy lots of attention once we were back in the room. What she loves best of all is a massage along her back, combining petting and back-scratching and lots of attention. I even gave her a quick towel-bath, running a damp cloth along her back and sides to get loose fur off. She also enjoyed her string game and the gopher game. She's quite interested in the laser pointer but disinclined to get up and chase it once she's in her favorite comfy spot atop the cat-stand near the door. Don't know what her original home was like before she was found as a stray, but she clearly wasn't a stray for long, given how she loves to alternate between getting lots of attention and sitting on her own in the high place of her choosing. Hope she finds a good home soon.

The ironically named Scruffy, who's always careful to keep his fluffy fur well-groomed, declined a walk (just putting the leash on upset him, so decided to call the whole thing off). He did enjoy the laser game, and the string game (at one point he and Zoe were tugging on different ends of the same string). He accepted some petting but mostly wanted to enjoy hanging out near the door on his own. 

Mondo Max got his medicine, thanks to Cher's dropping by and her skill at pill-delivery. He was very active today, prowling quite a lot. Doesn't seem to be a cuddler, or maybe I'm just catching him at the wrong time. He does love his catnip. He picked on Scruffy a little, which I just chalked up to dominance games. He was up on the cagetops some but didn't really settle up there. I'd brought in a cardboard box thinking he might enjoy it, but instead he territorially marked it (or so my cats informed me when I got it back home), so don't think I'll try that again.

And that just leaves shy Shorty, who lay low most of the morning. She did come out and explore when she thought no one was looking, but spent most of her time in her own cage. She welcomed being petted, so long as it was in her safe zone. She also allowed me to pick her up when it was time to cage-clean: I put her in one of the baskets on the bench and her brother in the other facing her, and she accepted this and stayed there until end of my shift, when I broke out the spoonful of wet catfood apiece. Since there were so few cats, and it was holiday season, I gave them each two spoonfuls, which pleased them greatly.

We did have some onlookers and one couple who were clearly in the early stage of looking for a new cat; suspect they'll be back again.

And that's about it for Wednesday.

--John R.